Fashion

Hard Time for an 'It' Girl

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 29, 2007

Paris Hilton has been lambasted for her undeserved fame, derided for an indulgent life of parties and designer clothes, and mocked for her vacant and immature public persona. But in her defense, one should remember that it is not easy being an "it" girl.

It is by no means an essential role or even necessarily an admirable one, but it has been around for generations. Little about the job has changed over the years. The most notable difference is the ability to go on cable television and reveal, through an hour of painfully inarticulate conversation, that "it" girls capture the culture's attention by their looks and deeds, not by their scintillating personality. Hilton's appearance Wednesday night on "Larry King Live" was nothing short of mind-numbing.

Hilton should not speak. Words cause her trouble; they cut the sheen on her golden glow. Sometimes they make her positively ugly, such as when she was captured on videotape making racially insensitive remarks. Women like Hilton are charged with representing a moment in time. They are a fleeting embodiment of a cultural mood. They are, almost by definition, wispily insubstantial.

In the 1950s, there were women who married well and dressed even better, such as the socialite C.Z. Guest. They ran on the charity circuit, partied around the globe and worked hard at always looking pulled together. In 2002, the Council of Fashion Designers of America honored Guest as a fashion icon. When Guest died in 2003, Women's Wear Daily began her obituary by essentially hailing her as a world-class party girl.

"Since her coming-out ball in 1937, C.Z. Guest set the tone for every aspiring socialite in America with her easy elegance and witty approach to the good life. . . . She was known for wearing ladylike suits while lunching at La Caravelle, classic jodhpurs when riding her many beloved horses and elegant eveningwear at parties, where her appearance would make or break an event."

During her youth, Guest joined the Ziegfeld Follies and then headed to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. That may seem rather tame compared with Hilton's infamous sex tape and her fish-out-of-water reality show "The Simple Life," but in Guest's day, acting was not considered an especially noble profession. Guest was a showgirl. Hilton is a video girl. Guest might have been part of the social registry and pictured in society columns, but Hilton is a regular in People and Us magazines. Same difference.

The 1960s launched girls such as Edie Sedgwick, who came from old money and a family that could trace its roots back to the Revolutionary War. She dedicated her life to the Andy Warhol Factory scene, appearing in mediocre movies and at infamous parties. She drank, she took drugs, she got arrested.

The fashion community champions her as a template of an era and as a muse. The actress Sienna Miller recently starred in the story of her life, "Factory Girl."

The 1980s brought the "deb of the decade" -- Cornelia Guest, daughter of C.Z. She was essentially famous for no particular reason other than her pedigree. Fame is like that -- it loves lineage, titles and provenance. Hilton is a hotel heiress. Britain's princes William and Harry are famous because of their titles, pleasant looks and little else, unless one counts the tales of Harry carousing in various pubs and William's off-again, on-again relationship with his girlfriend Kate. And Princess Diana? She was a posh blonde intent on marrying a prince. She was well into her 30s and post-divorce before she re-created herself as a do-gooder. Hilton still has plenty of time for such reinvention.

Perhaps change is already afoot. Hilton shopped retail and dressed herself for her "Larry King" appearance instead of letting a designer do the honors. She wore a dove gray BCBGMaxAzria dress with a scarf tie neckline and elbow-length sleeves with lace insets. The dress sells for $340. It was demure, not at all "hot," as Hilton might have once said. At the desk with King, it tended to look a bit frumpy -- not much tabletop appeal -- which is not such a bad thing for a young woman peddling the notion that during her brief jailing she had transformed from a narcissistic party hound into a Bible-reading, self-aware good Samaritan.

Hilton has stirred up a vast amount of animosity and vitriol. Yet her criminal offenses have been minor compared with the escapades of other celebrities. She has not been in and out of rehab. Her television show is certainly no more offensive or ridiculous than other shows that go without comment. But Hilton has taken on the role of a partying rich girl at a time when it is no longer beloved. It is judged . . . harshly.

In the '50s, a woman who threw herself into the task of dressing up and socializing was admired. In the narrowly defined roles for women of the time, that was a perfectly reasonable thing to do. In the 1960s, the idea of being a free-spirited partyer was almost a political statement. All that pot-smoking revelry symbolized rebellion and subversiveness. In the 1980s, the indulgences of the rich were indicative of "greed is good" capitalism at work.

The fashion industry still needs women like Hilton who will live lives that require a closet full of cocktail dresses. Party planners still need a roster of people who can make or break an event.

But really, what is a party girl now, in these self-righteous, smarty-pants, moralizing, 1-percent-of-the-proceeds-from-these- overpriced-clothes-are-going-to-charity times? She is the golden-haired embodiment of all that seems to have gone wrong in the culture. She is an uncomfortable measure of decadence, indifference and selfishness.

In the past, "it" girls were admired. They were memorialized. Hilton is no worse than those who preceded her. The difference is the size of the media storm generated by her escapades. And extremely bad timing.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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